CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many West Virginia jails are overcrowded, but the director of the South Central Regional Jail in Charleston says the situation at his facility is the worst in the state.
The jail sometimes houses about 600 inmates, despite being built to hold half that many, said SCRJ director Stephen Tucker. And to make matters worse, the jail has maintenance problems and not enough correctional officers.
State corrections officials have warned for years of the dangers of overcrowded jails. Earlier this month, lawmakers again started to talk about ways to alleviate the problem after they were told it was at "crisis" levels.
A large number of prisoners from the West Virginia Division of Corrections contribute most to the overcrowding, Tucker said, because they are housed temporarily in the jails while awaiting transfer to state prisons, which are themselves at maximum capacity.
He said that if the DOC prisoners were taken to prison, South Central's population would be slightly above 290 -- the number it was built to hold.
"This place was built and opened in 1993 and it was really designed about the right size to serve a county of this size," Tucker said. "If we took out all the inmates that should be elsewhere, we would be at or just above the limit."
Jail officials have had to find ways to make do with limited space at the facility, he said.
When overcrowding is at its worst, cells get double- or triple-bunked, with some inmates sleeping on 3-inch mats on the floor.
When cells get too crowded, some inmates have to sleep in cellblock commons areas -- meaning they can't be locked down if the need arises, Tucker said.
Each block of cells is broken down into "pods," with either eight or 16 cells in each. Pods are broken down into sections, divided by the level of convicted offenses.
Overcrowding has affected cellblocks housing the most violent convicts -- inmates who are required to be separated from others.
"Those on administrative segregation have a history of disruptive problems, disciplinary rule infractions . . . or have a history of assaulting other inmates or correctional officers," Tucker said. "They're generally the folks that have the biggest management problem. Again, those folks should be housed in a cell by themselves because they are such an issue."
Inmates who should be separated because their convictions make them targets for violence from other inmates, are often also double bunked.
"Again, from time to time because of the overcrowding issue, we are forced to go against what common sense would dictate and house them otherwise," Tucker said.
Because correctional officers are severely understaffed, some work 60-hour weeks to compensate, Tucker said.
"We have a terrible time recruiting and keeping officers," he said. "They are supervising twice the amount of inmates as they should be, and inmates cause problems, because that's what they do. They've got 24 hours a day to think of ways to create problems.